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Neo-soul sister Nneka cooks up a global groove


Youri Lenquette

The singer-songwriter Nneka, a journey-making artist of Nigerian and German heritage, is well known in Europe but has had minimal exposure in North America. That's beginning to change, though.

The compilation album Concrete Jungle was released in the United States and Canada early this year, and the neo-soul singer recently completed a tour with rapper Nas and reggae star Damian Marley. She performs in Toronto on Tuesday.

The music

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What Nneka terms a "mélange" is an expressive mix of pop, reggae, hip hop and African traditional music. Fans of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the work of Erykah Badu will appreciate its thoughtfulness, lilting soul-folk melodies and grooving rhythms.

Lyrics address political and spiritual concerns. "I would describe it as socially consciousness," says the 28-year-old.

The refrain to the hypnotic rap song Showin' Love defines life as being about "giving love, showing love, doing love, making love."

And the Bob Marley-esque Africans tells Westerners to take responsibility for their exploitation of the developing world, while imploring Africans to stop blaming others for their plight.

"It's about raising awareness about how Africans can make a change by realizing we have to eradicate a certain colonial mentality that has been imposed upon us," says the singer, who was born and raised in Nigeria (her mother is German), "and that the inferiority complex that we're still running around with has to be eliminated."

The heritage

When it comes to artists with complex racial and cultural backgrounds, Nneka, who relocated to Germany at age 18 to study anthropology in Hamburg, is one of many these days. There is the Somalia-Canadian hip-hop troubadour K'naan; the England-born Jamaican-Iranian pop-soul singer Rox; and the Sri Lankin Londoner M.I.A.

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But although Nneka acknowledges the unique sensibilities a mixed-race artist may enjoy - "it does have an impact on the way people write and hear music" - she downplays any mysteriousness or inherent advantage.

"All musicians travel to different places and see the world, so I don't know if it matters where you come from. I mean, there are many Americans who have colourful musical ideas."

The mission

Nneka is no Madonna or Lady Gaga when it comes to showmanship. "I don't know what entertainment is," she says. "I just what do what I do - take it or leave it, that's how it is. I do my act. I'm not there to please anybody."

That being said, Nneka on stage is no shoe-gazing mope. And neither is she unthankful toward her fans. It's just that she has little interest in the business end of the music business.

"For people to come and see me, of course, I appreciate it. People buy tickets to see me play - capitalism exists. We all have to earn money, et cetera, et cetera. But it's music that I live. It's music that I am."

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The concrete jungle

Themes of polarity dominate Kneka's lyrics. For example, the album title Concrete Jungle refers to two worlds: the artificial and the authentic, with the "plastic" United States being inauthentic in her eyes. "Everybody there is polite," she explains. "But it's what Malcolm X would consider tokenism and philanthropic."

When it's suggested to the singer that her assessment of America is overly sweeping and critical, Nneka apologizes - "I'm sorry," she laughs. "Who am I to judge?" - before she rephrases.

"What I'm trying to do is bring the superficial and the natural together. To being the concrete into the jungle, and the jungle into the concrete."

Nneka appears Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the El Mocambo in Toronto.

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